“This is her last time,” I said. “I swear.”
“That’s what you said last time.”
“Look, let’s talk about it later. I presently have a sleeping wildcat on my hands—a cat that’s gonna be very, very pissed off in twenty minutes. Besides,” I added.
“Besides what?” snapped Brice.
“My daughter is a natural,” I said proudly.
On the day that changed his life forever, Lieutenant Commander Joseph Carter fought anxiety as he veered his government vehicle off the freeway.
He headed toward the naval base in Seal Beach, pondering who and what awaited him. He knew he wasn’t supposed to smoke in the car. He lit a cigarette anyway. He told himself that he hadn’t done anything wrong. Nothing to worry about. But still...
Why had he been summoned?
“You know why,” he told himself, but he didn’t want to think about it now. He inhaled deeply, turned up the radio and opened the car’s windows to clear out the tobacco smoke.
The base was less than ten minutes from the freeway. That meant, the Lieutenant Commander told himself, that he had ten minutes to gather his thoughts. Not that he hadn’t been doing so since earlier today when he was first ordered to report to Seal Beach. He wasn’t feeling well, and his sunglasses did little to shield the blinding rays that made his head ache even worse. He had little appetite. No surprise there. This morning, he’d consumed about a half-gallon of water, which he’d later upchucked.
“Must be the flu,” he muttered, remembering that his buddy, Mike, had displayed the same symptoms. Thinking of Mike, he glanced in his rearview mirror. “Hey, wake up!” He’d almost forgotten about Mike, and that was strange. Jesus, his thoughts were scattered.
Mike didn’t move, so Joe tossed an empty water bottle back to wake his comrade. Mike finally sat up, clearly bewildered.
“We’re almost there,” Joe said. “Get your shit together.”
Mike didn’t look so hot but did his best to comply.
“Can’t afford to get sick,” Joe muttered, whether to himself or Mike, he wasn’t sure. But Joe decided to squeeze in a clinic visit and ask for some antibiotics while he was on base. That would take care of whatever was ailing them. It was probably just the flu.
He almost missed the entrance, swerving into the left-turn lane at the last moment. He knew this exit like the back of his hand. How could he have almost missed it?
I’m just distracted and not feeling well, he thought.
It’s just the flu, he told himself again as he flashed his ID to the guards and was waved through the gate. He veered the car toward base headquarters.
* * *
“Let’s go over it again,” said the Agent in Black.
Lieutenant Commander Joseph Carter wanted to bury his head in his hands, but he knew better. This agent had now been questioning him for three hours. Joe knew the drill. It could go on for several more if this asshole didn’t get the answers he wanted.
Don’t lose your temper, he thought. Show respect. No matter how crappy you feel.
And Joe was feeling increasingly crappy. He was flat-out sick. He pushed thoughts of the sickness aside and focused on his surroundings, though he did note the location of the nearest wastebasket. Just in case.
The office was small and it would have been cozy if he had been there under more pleasant circumstances. The guards outside were the only hint of threat. The problem was that Joe Carter was having a very hard time remembering what had happened two nights ago. His thoughts felt scattered, incoherent, almost as if he was drunk. Or high. Or both.
The small room and guards outside were also making him feel claustrophobic. God, his head ached, too. He wanted to put on his sunglasses, even though the blinds were closed. The glass of water on the desk sat untouched. Joe was thirsty, yes, but he didn’t want to barf all over the office. Then again, maybe it would speed up this whole process.
Joe sighed. “Where do you want me to begin?”
The Agent in Black was seated on the corner of the desk—a position that allowed him to look down on the Lieutenant Commander. Joe knew all these tactics, but had never had them applied to him. His pristine record in the military spoke for itself. He’d never been in trouble and he didn’t think his actions the other night were unwarranted.
“You and your friend were returning to your quarters from the bar, when...?”
“I saw what I thought was a meteor,” said Joe.
“But it wasn’t a meteor.”
“It landed in the middle of a field.”
“Inside the base?”
“What did it look like, falling to the ground?”
“I just told you.” Joe tried to hide his frustration. “At first, it looked like a meteor. A falling star. It had a trail. But as it came closer, we realized it was very small, and it was going to hit the ground.”
“How small was it?” asked the Agent in Black for the hundredth time.
“About the size of a basketball,” Joe answered tiredly.
“And you two just ran over to it?”
“You didn’t think to report an unidentified object landing on military ground?”
“No, I...we...weren’t thinking, I guess. We’d had a few beers...we were off-duty.”
“Lieutenant commanders are never completely off-duty.”
Joe Carter remembered that he was supposed to be on leave. “I know. It was a mistake.”
“So, what did it look like?”
Joe looked longingly at the water. He lit a cigarette instead. He raised his bloodshot eyes to the Agent in Black. “It looked like a sphere, I told you. About the size of a football...” Joe trailed off. No, that wasn’t right.
“A football?” The Agent in Black was right on it.
“No, that’s not what I meant.” Joe Carter’s brain felt like jelly. He felt truly ill. He frowned. He concentrated. “A basketball. I meant it was the size of a basketball.”
“You just said football. Which was it?”
“A basketball. It was round. I got my words mixed up. I’m sorry.”
The Agent in Black regarded his detainee, for a detainee was exactly what Lieutenant Commander Joseph Carter was. For the moment, anyhow. The Agent in Black studied the man below him, and figured the man was either withholding information, or was coming down with something. Or hung-over, which the agent doubted. After all, Carter had been under surveillance for the last forty-three hours, ever since “The Incident.”